Animal Rights Group's Tactics Raise Concerns Among Law Enforcement

Dec 4, 2018

Miami prosecutors said they will not file any charges in a cockfighting investigation citing "serious ethical concerns" about the tactics used by the animal rights group that went undercover to find the ring.

“I believe that filing such charges would tend to encourage ARM ... to conduct future undercover investigations without appropriate supervision and support from law enforcement agencies and thus engage in behavior that is both extremely unsafe and potentially illegal,” Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Michael Filteau wrote in a final memo on the case, referring to Animal Recovery Mission (ARM). 

“There is very little difference between ARM investigators and, let’s say, an undercover narcotics unit with the Miami-Dade police department,” said the group's leader, Richard Cuoto in an interview with the Miami Herald. "We don't need to work with law enforcement.”

WLRN's Sundial spoke with Miami Herald reporter David Ovalle about the case and to learn more about ARM. You can listen to the conversation or read some highlights below.

It's hard to say just how prevalent cockfighting is in Miami Dade County but it certainly is something that is a robust underground activity. It's a cultural thing, it's something that's been in South Florida for generations and something that comes with a lot of the Hispanic immigrants that come to this country, and it's something that in countries like Cuba and Puerto Rico is not seen as illegal. But because it's illegal [here] it's hard to know exactly how many there are, but it's certainly something that police have made arrests on in the past and has certainly been the focus of groups like the animal recovery mission.

WLRN: And what is this group the Animal Recovery Mission? Who are they?

Animal Recovery Mission is a group that was started by a man by the name of Richard Cuoto and he used to work with the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And they've sort of fashioned themselves as a rural gungho, take action type of group that goes undercover and gets the videos and does investigations into illegal slaughterhouses, and illegal cockfighting rings. They've had a lot of high profile successes and they've of course sort of become media darlings too. They're always willing to take out reporters to their sanctuary where they have animals that have been rescued.

And so this particular case was about a suspected cockfighting ring in Miami Dade. Police had arrived at the scene but months later prosecutors decided they won’t press charges. Why?

There's been friction between Animal Recovery Mission and law enforcement in various counties across the state. A lot of it has to do with some of the tactics that they employ. There have been questions about the legality of the undercover videos that they're doing, the tactics they employ, even the way they carry themselves, Cuoto himself and also some of the members of his group are wearing all black, sort of tactical gear.

There were also claims of possible tampering with evidence.

Working with law enforcement has become the biggest issue because they do not want to work with law enforcement directly. They want to do their investigation then turn it over to the police and allow them to basically put the bow on the top and get an arrest and then take credit for it. So they have refused to be supervised by police detectives the same way any sort of confidential informant or cooperating witness might be run by the police. So a lot of this is stuff that's been sort of bubbling behind the surface in various counties for years and it kind of just sort of came to a head with this case.

Read the full story by our news partner, the Miami Herald.